11/04/13 - 11/08/13: Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina
After five full days of hiking the W we decided it was time for…wait for it…more hiking. (There’s not much else to do in Patagonia). And, in the wake of our luxurious trek that included catered meals and refugios with warm beds, we figured why put a stop to our decadence in the mountains? So, when we caught our bus to El Chaltén to visit Los Glaciares National Park, we weren’t destined for some cheap hostel, we were bound for the best Bed & Breakfast in the entire world – El Pilar.
El Pilar Hosteria was one of those places we happened upon while researching our trip through Argentinian Patagonia. The reviews were so universally positive that we had to at least attempt to stay there, even if it was just north of our daily budget. Being the shoulder season, we were able to book a room, no problem. Now it was time to see if the praise lived up to the price.
On arrival, we were picked up at the bus station, driven out of town along a long gravel road for 20 minutes, and dropped off at an isolated area with nary a neighbor in sight. If this was some elaborate ruse to get us out in the middle of nowhere so that no one could hear us scream then well done, El Pilar, well done. Thankfully, we were perfectly safe in the friendliest of places. Every employee that greeted us was nothing but kind and helpful. The building was small with a soft yellow exterior and red fringe, extremely quaint and unassuming. The foyer was welcoming, with several little tables for dining on the left and a central fireplace on the right encircled with cushioned chairs. We were shown to our double room with its own private bathroom and shower, including a bathtub (I hadn’t seen one of these since we left the states!). Yes sir, we’d definitely fallen into the lap of luxury.
The day of our arrival happened to be an unprecedentedly beautiful one. On entering the park, the ranger said everyone should take advantage of the weather since many people never even see the mountains due to thick cloud cover. Katie and I had planned on a lazy day inside, but seeing as the odds were against us at having another day as clear as this, we took the ranger up on his suggestion and hit the trails.
El Pilar sits on the end of a path that leads straight to Mount Fitz Roy, the highlight of the park. Its vertical spires are what most people conjure up in their minds when they hear the word Patagonia. Now we were on its doorstep, and walking up to meet it at a brisk pace since it was 1:30 P.M. and the entire hike was going to take 6 hours. Not ideal, but springtime in Patagonia yields extra long days of sunlight. We wouldn’t be caught out in the dark.
Our journey began in a twisted landscape of gnarled trees and ancient stumps. The forest was tall, thin, and packed with the remains of fallen soldiers. Knobby limbs and trunks tangled in every direction. Green leaves shaded us from overhead. We spied a huge mountain with a glacier tucked into its curve from a mirador to our right (that’s Spanish for lookout). It sat bright and dripping under the midday sun.
The forest eventually gave way to a vast meadow filled with low-lying brush of red, green, and violet. The dirt below our feet was rusty and dusty. Peaks covered in snow towered on our right while on our left dry rugged plateaus reminiscent of an Arizona landscape rose up from the ground. Desert terrain meets alpine scenery.
We passed by our 2-hour marker, a place called Poincenot, and from there it was a short hike through a campground followed by a torturous climb up to Fitz Roy – 1 hour duration, 400 meter elevation gain, 2 kilometer distance. Unlike our trek on the W, we didn’t have the luxury of hiking poles, and we both felt it. You’d be surprised how much energy the poles provide. It’s hard to describe, but I find them motivating; they help with balance, engage more muscles, aid your momentum, distract you from pain – simply put, they rock. While in the forest, Katie had picked up a large branch to use for uphill. Right now she was singing its praises. They weren’t kidding when they said this trail was steep.
I heaved heavy breaths several paces in front of Katie and her trusty staff. Back and forth the switchbacks swung, etching a crooked line straight up to Fitz Roy. All we could do was put one foot in front of the other. The top inched closer and closer. Then it was right there. And finally, we were on top! A frozen lake lay cupped in Fitz Roy’s hand and its peak nearly pierced the sun. The light was so intense it was blinding, rebounding off swaths of untouched snow that wrapped around the mountain like fondant.
After taking an excessive amount of pictures, we hiked down to the lake and took turns walking in the snow. It was deceptively deep; Katie nearly fell into it! Fitz Roy was constantly hovering over us creating a beautiful skyline to admire as the sun slowly sank behind its edge. We probably spent too much time at the top, seeing as we had to hike all the way back, but it was too beautiful a spot to leave so quickly.
Eventually, we reluctantly departed. It was 6pm when we left the comforting presence of Fitz Roy. The sun dipped behind its spires and we had 3 hours of hiking to go. The down was somewhat brutal, but Katie gave me her walking stick to use as support. Bless her, once again. The rest of the hike went by quickly. For the most part it slanted downward, so we gained time on our return. We arrived back at the B&B at 8:15 P.M. with plenty of time for a shower before dinner.
Dinner… My, oh my, does El Pilar do dinner right. Three course meals, each course with three different options to choose from. That first night we ate bruschetta with prosciutto, spaghetti with homemade noodles and sauce, and a three-layer trifle. Anyone who knows us won’t be surprised to hear that we split the meal. As usual, one meal was more than enough to satisfy two hobbit-sized ladies, such as ourselves. But the fabulous food didn’t end there. Come morning we were treated to the best part of a B&B – the breakfast. It was, hands down, the best breakfast we had in South America. Yummy cereal, hot cocoa, fresh fruit, homemade bread and jam, creamy butter, yogurt, pastries, and freshly squeezed bottomless orange juice – that’s right, bottomless!!! I was guzzling it like I was suffering from scurvy. Needless to say, we were loving El Pilar. The food was great, the service was impeccable, and they had a fire you could sit beside all day long. I’d died and gone to heaven. That’s why the following two days at El Pilar were spent in leisurely bliss. We read, wrote, and warmed ourselves by the fireplace, sometimes for hours at a time. Not having wi-fi was a gift. Both Katie and I felt free – cut off from the outside world with a snug fire and a good book. It was the most relaxed we’ve been on this entire trip.
At midday we’d break up our sloth with a long stroll amidst spectacular mountain scenery and wide, shallow rivers of milky blue. Once again, I was free to drink directly from the waterways, and I took advantage of this at every opportunity. When you think about it, the snowpack that created the glaciers, and thus these rivers, fell from the sky hundreds of years ago. So, with every sip I wasn’t just drinking water, I was consuming the past.
El Pilar’s resident cat, Coca, became my friend during our four days at the B&B. She would saunter around the foyer fluffed up like a feather duster, but with far less purpose. Her modus operandi was lazing about until dinnertime when she’d wander from table to table hoping for a handout. She was lucky. There were quite a few cat lovers in residence when we were there.
The only downside of El Pilar revealed itself come nightfall, when an unwelcome visitor would scurry through our walls. We never saw it, only heard it, and it kept us awake a couple of times with surprisingly loud activities. We never notified the staff about our little problem. We probably should have, but we imagined getting rid of vermin would take some doing and we were having too peaceful a time to give up our solitude.
On our fourth and final day at El Pilar we gave ourselves our most challenging hike yet (length-wise): Hiking to Lago Torre from El Chaltén and then hiking all the way back to El Pilar. Estimated length of the trek: 18 miles. We took a cab into town and started our walk at 11 A.M. Not exactly the best time to begin an extended hike, but those divine breakfasts had me gorging myself each morning, and that takes time.
Even though the day was clear and sunny we had to get our gloves and buffs on right away. The wind was slicing through us like shards of ice. The path wasn’t difficult, mostly flat with short inclines, and we could see mountains with hanging glaciers looming before us. Cerro Torre, a large jagged peak, rose up into view with clouds tickling its top, but we were grateful for the mostly clear sky. It took 2 ½ hours to reach Lago Torre where a large glacier poured up to the water’s edge across the way. Icy wind blew across the lake and icebergs bobbed along the surface.
I skipped some rocks while Katie collected them. An English couple that was also staying at El Pilar was there, too. I chatted with them and found out they’d just hiked the path we were about to attempt. They said that, aside from “one stiff bit” at the beginning, it would be generally flat and easy. That was certainly good news since we had many more hours of trekking ahead. After lunch we pulled up our buffs and headed out.
That “stiff bit” happened right away. It came in the form of switchbacks angling up through a forested hill. After that the ground flattened out as we made our way through a couple of small meadows and reached two closely related lakes – Lagos La Hija y La Madre (The Daughter and The Mother Lakes). We passed to the right of them and admired their greenish shade, which was unusual in this glacial area. By the time we got to the end of Lago Madre we could see Fitz Roy and the trail we’d hiked only 3 days prior. My God, did it look steep and unappealing! We happily passed it by and took the now familiar path toward El Pilar. It took a while to get back, but we made it there by 6:30 P.M. Subtracting our time at the lake, the hike had only taken us 7 hours. Good thing, too, because the biting chill had increased to the point of our fingers cracking off!
We each had plenty of time to take a warm bath after a day out in the elements. Flurries of snow were falling during those last two hours and I couldn’t get my hands warm despite my gloves. Our noses ran with abandon. When I finally dipped my body into the hot water a stinging rash appeared all over my thighs. I knew I hadn’t picked up anything poisonous on the trail – no, it was all from the cold! My legs had been icy before submersion and now the heat stung them like a hundred bees. The pain (and rash) wore off as they defrosted.
With wet hair and excited stomachs we went to dinner for our last sumptuous supper at El Pilar: A fantastic salad (finally! It’d been so long), mouth-watering chicken al disco (a traditional Argentinian dish that is to die for), and a parfait made with black beer (so tasty we nearly fell out of our chairs). The next morning the staff had the full breakfast laid out for us even though we were leaving before breakfast officially started. I thanked and complimented them profusely. They’d been incredibly hospitable and took care of our every need. You couldn’t ask for a better group of people.
We bid Coca the cat a fond farewell before boarding the van to El Chaltén. Tomorrow we were leaving Patagonia and flying to Buenos Aires. Even though I was excited to visit Argentina’s capital, I didn’t want to leave El Pilar. There’s something special about that place. Even the employees agreed. Many expressed their love of it, saying the peace and serenity it grants is why they come back year after year.
In the weeks following our stay at El Pilar I found myself thinking of it time and time again with a longing sigh and smile. Both of us consider it our “happy place” – a memory that sustains us whenever we are met with uncomfortable surroundings and stressed from travel. When I transport myself back there a wave of tranquility washes over me. I hope we get to return someday, only next time we’ll stay for the entire summer, hike every trail in the park, bring hundreds of books, and pack some extra baggy clothes, because you know all that scrumptious food would eventually take its toll. My goodness, I think I’ve just described heaven itself.